Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?

September 24, 2020 6:00 am

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Jews around the world are on the cusp of observing Yom Kippur — the Jewish Day of Atonement. This is the day that we “do right by God.” That is, we are meant to spend the rest of the year making amends and repairing relationships with others, but Yom Kippur is when we repair our broken relationship with God. God then effects atonement, absolving us of our past transgressions.

But this absolution is not entirely unilateral. The most common observance of this holy day — among all Jewish denominations — is fasting. We fast from sundown to sundown — this year Sunday night to Monday night. Over the centuries, the rabbis have offered many different reasons as to why we fast. For some, it is an expression of seriousness and devotion, before God, on the holiest day of the year. For others, it is a form of self-affliction for their past wrongs.

I see fasting as a sign of mourning. There was a Jewish tradition of fasting on the memorial anniversary (the yahrzeit) of a loved one. When we fast on Yom Kippur, we mourn our own death each year — regretfully leaving tasks unfinished and goals unmet. And we wake up the day after Yom Kippur, reborn, with a new lease on life.

But the rabbis millennia ago hinted that this fast is far more nuanced than we realize. The Scripture reading from the Prophets the morning of Yom Kippur comes from the Book of Isaiah. Central to that reading is God’s declaration:

Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when God is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke; To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin. Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; Your Vindicator shall march before you, the Presence of God shall be your rear guard.

The rabbis subtly (or not so subtly) invoke God’s voice to call out to each of us on Yom Kippur and shout: “You’re doing it all wrong!” It is not simply about leaving the food left behind for the day; it is about leaving the world in a better place than you found it! Do not abstain from eating and cry out to God feigning seriousness out of hunger. Instead, move on from Yom Kippur with your new lease on life and end hunger altogether. God is calling for progress, not regress.

We need this message now more than ever.

There is wickedness in our world. There is corruption. There is oppression. There is hunger. There is poverty. There is ignorance. There is apathy. There is hate. There is inequality and inequity. There is seemingly endless division.

Our fasting will do nothing to end any of these. However, perhaps this year, our personal hunger will allow us finally to hear these words more clearly, charging each one of us to go out and pursue an end to all that rattles the foundation of our world.

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Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.